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—– Editorial —–
When it comes to Baltimore County Public Schools’ (BCPS) new school board, some are breathing a sigh of relief. And while there may be disagreement on the reasons why that is, one thing is certain: for many of those who have been paying attention over the last six years, the new group of new and incumbent board members is seen as a new dawn, a new day and a very welcome new beginning.
After years of twice-monthly meetings and school system twists and turns that can only be characterized as “You just cannot make this stuff up,” voters and a commission of education leaders had their say this month.
And that message was clear: no lawyers, more educators, even more education advocates and a complete reorganization of the composition of the school board which will now include more diversity in demographics – and expertise.
Over the past six years, BCPS has undergone significant changes which were designed to destabilize what was perceived as the status quo, which was a system designed to cater to some students, but not all.
New discipline policies, new grading policies, new high school schedules, new spending priorities and a complete overhaul of the system’s curriculum delivery to all-digital, all-of-the-time, blasted through the system in whirlwind fashion under former Superintendent Dallas Dance.
But some might say these were more than mere changes to the school system. Some might go as far as to say that BCPS has been traumatized by them. That is The Baltimore Post’s position. And it’s why we think the new board is seen as a relief with the potential to stabilize BCPS’s two-year free fall into a bad publicity oblivion.
Former Superintendent Dance was hired to shake things up and move the system forward. Before he was convicted earlier this year of perjury, for failing to report on legal forms nearly $150,000 in income he made on the side while leading the 25th largest school system in the country, Dance had his sights on fixing inequities in the system.
BCPS was wrought with those inequities before Dance arrived – and still is. He was right about that. But Dance honed in on expensive technology as the equalizer, and at the expense of rotting buildings, bursting pipes, reduced staff, reduced school budgets, and brown drinking water at schools such as Dulaney and Lansdowne high schools.
His vision also came at the expense of solid research into the effectiveness of such a massive shift in educating students via software in a so-called “personalized learning” environment. But perhaps, more than anything, the application of Dance’s vision came at the expense of a loss of trust in the school system by those who were watching closely.
It should come as no surprise, though, as he was clear at the outset. He stated he never intended to pilot his laptop-for-every-student digital curriculum program he called STAT, for Students and Teachers Accessing Tomorrow. And he and his top administrators stated their intent to transform the school system with irreversible, “second order” change, despite offering no data to support a successful digital overhaul in the first place.
But he was also clear about the speed of that change. “We are building the plane as we fly it,” Dance said. He called it, “deliberate excellence.”
Dance was bright, he was ambitious and he was driven leader whose intention was to turn the system on its head. And that he did. And then some.
He would often say, “The status quo is more dangerous than the unknown.” His Twitter profile states he is “Reasonably impatient about getting results.” And he was also very fond of saying “If you don’t tell your story, someone else will tell it for you, and they will often get that story wrong.”
But the problem, it turns out, was the story. The Baltimore Post believes the problem was that there was a narrative at all, and one that did not match up with what was actually occurring in the school system. And that this is what led to a loss of trust in the system’s administrators — trust that has to be earned back and hasn’t yet been.
The Baltimore Post has written extensively on the lavish trips where school system administrators delivered speeches while on the road, on topics that seemed incongruent with what was stated at school board meetings.
Within a two-week period, for instance, the system went from showing “early baseline data” for its technology program to being asked for its “secret to success” as an education technology model for the United States.
But all along, many in the media remained silent.
In part, and as a result, The Baltimore Post aimed to fill that silent void. We reported on the lavish trips to expensive resorts where administrators delivered speeches, where some bragged about the strategy in shifting the system’s spending priorities.
We discovered a contract clause that dispelled the myth that the school system was forced by a deadline into its latest $140 million technology contract when administrators warned if the school board failed to approve the contract immediately, teachers would lose their technology (and curriculum) before the next school year. All but four board members voted for that contract. It passed. (One of the administrators who warned of such of a calamity – Lloyd Brown, BCPS’s previous director of information technology – resigned from the system soon after that contract passed, by the way. He went to work for one of the system’s technology vendors, Safari Montage.)
We discovered multiple employees with educational consulting companies and amended financial disclosure statements – sometimes amended many years later, while some employees did not declare a single dollar in outside income at all.
And we discovered a massive document purge of financial disclosure statements, which was the first in the system’s recorded history. It was a purge that occurred while a Baltimore Post reporter was in the midst of actively requesting the documents, and during very public and heated discussions on the scope, need and control of a widely requested procurement audit.
And when we exposed these things, we struck a nerve. Each time we reported a little more, we often experienced from the school system, not a concern about what had been found, but a disdain – or worse, an ambivalence – from school system leadership, that it had been.
Outgoing school board vice chairman, Nick Stewart, for instance, said during his parting comments at the last school board meeting, “The work of our board is far more than what comes out of a 24-hour news cycle and ill-informed blogosphere. And contrary to certain comments, we are here for more than just watchdogs whose sole purpose is to play a perpetual and single-minded game of gotcha.”
The system’s chief of staff, previous communications director, Mychael Dickerson, also both publicly and privately labeled The Baltimore Post’s reports as “fake news” in an effort to discredit the publisher and publication.
We can only surmise that certain media publications, such as this one, triggered such comments which led to certain administrators to have criticized some mysterious “blogger” or marginalized publication for tearing down public education — which we don’t do, by the way. The Baltimore Post wholly and fully supports public education and the nation’s public schools.
Yet, right or wrong, and despite the accusations aimed at us, we understand the school system’s frustration.
BCPS may be right to lament so much negative coverage over recent months and years. It has been consistent. It has been ongoing. And it has been unrelenting. But the information reported is, was, and remains to be true. Does the fault lie with the messenger?
And with so much that has gone wrong in the system, there has been a plethora of material to report and only so much time in which to report it. We don’t often have the time – with our small staff – to concentrate too long on the good stuff. But we want to.
As such, we resolve moving forward to do more and to balance our reporting with that “good stuff.” There is good stuff – and plenty of it – going on in the system. And we want to reflect the truth of that.
So, in closing, we say this: send us your success stories and your ideas, along with the other stuff. It’s a new dawn, a new day and shift in the winds for Baltimore County Public Schools. And we want to showcase all of that, too.
But don’t get too excited; we will never stop holding government officials and organizations accountable.
That is the job, after all. And, in our opinion, the long lack of thoughtful coverage by some media outlets is why Baltimore County Public Schools – and Baltimore County government – is in the state they are in.
It’s precisely why we think the new school board has been met with a deep sigh of relief. And it’s also why we think voters and education advocates sent a strong message this month with their choices for Baltimore County’s new and incumbent school board members.